Generations collide as Brand meets Paxman

To people of my generation, the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem as if young people don’t care about anything. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society.

Russell Brand skewered my old mate Jeremy Paxman on 23 October when discussing the subject of “revolution” on BBC2’s Newsnight. Or rather, they skewered each other. It was one of those rare media occasions where each participant achieves what he wants: Russell to inspire a generation, Jeremy to get a feisty interview with one of the key voices of his age.

Russell’s normal shtick is benign mayhem: to be the Jungian trickster. Jeremy’s shtick is to conduct every interview from the point of view of an 18th-century country vicar, who if the times were not so chaotic might – as in Orwell’s poem – “preach upon eternal gloom/And watch my walnuts grow”.

In Jeremy’s world, all legitimacy comes from the parliamentary process and the monarchy. In Russell’s, things are different. In Russell’s world, people are so fed up with capitalism that there is a high likelihood of revolution. When he made this point, Jeremy’s eyebrow went crazy.

Russell stands up in front of thousands of young people who’ve paid a serious dollop of their wages to hear him make them laugh. Though he looks like a survivor from Altamont, his audience does not. They are young, professional people: nurses, bank clerks, call-centre operatives. And what Russell has picked up is that they hate, if not the concept of capitalism, then what it’s doing to them. They hate the corruption manifest in politics and the media; the rampant criminality of a global elite whose wealth nestles beyond taxation and accountability; the gross and growing inequality; and what it’s doing to their own lives.

Russell’s audience get pay cheques, but their real spending power is falling. They don’t just need help to buy, they need help to pay the mortgage; help to get out of relationships that are collapsing under economic stress; help to pay the legal loan shark and meet the minimum credit-card payment. Above all, they need help to understand what kind of good life capitalism is going to offer their generation. Because since Lehman Brothers that has not been obvious.

Jeremy’s audience consists of their mums and dads. They, too, are worried about the future, but – as a generation – they are financially secure. So when Russell tells Jeremy that profit is evil, that capitalism is destroying the planet, that politics is corrupt, it’s like watching proxies for two completely different worlds collide.

I think, on balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It won’t be a socialist revolution, nor even an anti-capitalist one in design. It will be something cultural – like the mass uprising of Turkish youth I saw in Taksim Square this year. A complete rejection of the venal values of those who run society. In fact, as I’ve written before, it’s already going on.

What’s driving it is the failure of the current mode of capitalism to answer some basic questions such as: where will the jobs come from if automation takes over our lives? Where will high wages come from if workers’ bargaining power is repeatedly stamped down by the process of globalisation? How will this generation be secure in old age, if the pension system is shattered and we face half a century of boom-bust?

To people of my generation, the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem as if young people don’t care about any of this. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society: raise your voice, and the official responses range from “being asked to leave” to tasering. All the repression of the various protests – Sol, Syntagma, Taksim, Occupy – has done is to force the anger and rejection inwards. The revolution that’s under way is more about mental and cultural rejection of the story on offer: to leave college with a heap of debt, to work as a near-slave in your early twenties in the name of a “work placement” or “internship”.

And it is not only Russell who thinks there’s going to be a revolution. Analysts at Gartner, an IT consultancy, recently issued this warning: “A largerscale version of an ‘Occupy Wall Street’-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.”

So Russell versus Jeremy was a big cultural event, akin maybe to one of those David Frost interviews in the Profumo era, only in this case it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, who speaks for the upcoming generation. Because while everybody over 40 is saying, in effect, “Tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous?” a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on.

“Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere” is out now (Verso, £12.99). A version of this article first appeared at channel4.com/news

Russell Brand. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser